Forensic Fiction: An English Class … with a Plot Twist

October 29, 2013

Academics, English

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by Andrew Millen ’08

A money pouch went missing from the Dunavant Upper School classroom 115, and the thief was nowhere to be found. He left behind just one undeniable clue – his scent.

Isabella, a 1-year-old bloodhound, picked up the scent and followed it to a holly bush behind the Sue H. Hyde sports complex, where she quickly located the stashed pouch. Tracing the perpetrator’s trail, she hurried past open dumpsters, down the cafeteria hallway, and even through the aromatic bouquet of Hyde Chapel. She led her handlers, Mr. Bob Weible and Mrs. Paulette Weible from Search Dogs South, past the McCaughan Science Center and into the Hull Lower School. There she identified and cornered the culprit in his office: Mr. Clay Smythe ’85, Lower School principal.

The theft was a ruse, of course, but the manhunt was not. Shadowing Isabella as she sniffed out the suspect were members of Mr. Tim Greer’s Detective Fiction class, a senior elective that at times appears to be more television cop show than English course.

The lab reenacted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” in which Sherlock Holmes utilizes a dog to trail a suspect in the disappearance of a star rugby player. After reading the short story, learning about Search Dogs South’s operation, and observing Isabella’s work firsthand, the students discussed the pros and cons of canine search and rescue in their final papers.

Detective fiction classes are increasingly popular at colleges and universities. Greer combined elements from some of the country’s best programs with his own ideas to build the syllabus, including using E.J. Wagner’s book The Science of Sherlock Holmes, a staple in many college courses.

“Doyle basically invented forensics,” Greer said. “He researched investigative techniques from obscure cases all over Europe, combined them with his own theories, and communicated the result to the public through his literature. It was not long before actual crime solvers had picked up his methods.”

Since the 19th century, forensics has evolved along with technology. In the late 1980s New Scotland Yard adopted a facial compositing computer program called E-FIT, designed to help identify criminals based on witness descriptions. Greer’s students used the technology to create composites – without using a mirror – of their own faces.

The class also conducted experiments to detect forged signatures, identify perpetrators by their bite marks, study the effectiveness of disguises, and even investigate an actual cold case.

Though steeped in science, Detective Fiction is an English class to its core.

“Detective fiction emphasizes the same things Aristotle did, especially plot, character, theme, and diction” Greer said. “The heart of its popularity is its great overriding theme,  the human desire to know. We can’t resist a puzzle.”

The syllabus includes a wide variety of literature, from Doyle’s classic tales, to Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic mysteries, to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s private eye noir novels. Students read critically as they seek out clues and fact-check crime solvers in the fictional works.

Greer devised the class after considering what he would most like to teach.

“I am a life-long Sherlock Holmes fan,” he said. “And I thought it would be great material to engage seniors. They love reading these stories – the intrigue is both engrossing and fun.”

Wells Jackson ’13 said he signed up for Detective Fiction because he enjoyed reading detective stories in Lower School.

“I think the element of surprise really draws people into the books in a unique way,” he said.

Seth Carson ’13 cited Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon as his favorite read.

“The intricacy of the plot and Hammett’s writing style really set the book apart from the rest,” he said. “Also, we were able to experience the story through the film adaptation and by investigating the gunshot residue clue.”

In the gunshot residue experiment, students fired blanks from a Colt .45 at a canvas from three distances. They analyzed the blast patterns to measure the distance at which a gunshot leaves visible residue, testing their conclusions against the findings in Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Reigate Squire” and The Maltese Falcon.

Although Greer used crime-solving labs to draw students into literature, the tactic had an additional effect. Carson said the experience piqued his interest in forensics. He has been drawn to the sciences from a young age, and he said the class has given him a very different kind of lab experience.

“I think criminology would definitely make tedious lab work more thrilling,” he said. “And forensics could be the perfect mixture of my interests in field work and laboratory research. After taking this class, I’m seriously considering it.”


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  1. Greer Honored for Creating Detective Fiction Class | InsideMUS - February 5, 2014

    […] Find an article and photos from Greer’s Detective Fiction class here. […]

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